Yesterday a friend dropped a reed and it proceeded to fall through a crack in the floor. This happened during a concert.

Let me tell you, this is worthy of many, many tears! I know the friend didn’t literally cry, but surely must have felt a bit like doing so.

Double reed players spend hours on reeds — it can feel like a lifetime! We are dealing with plant life. Every piece of cane is different. Every piece of cane is in a state of change. We take our knives to this material, and each tiny scrape can change a reed drastically. One bad scrape and it’s done for.

If I hear a student say “I LOVE LOVE LOVE my reed” or some such thing (always using that dangerous singular “reed” rather than “reeds”!) I sometimes respond with “I’m sorry.” I don’t say this completely in jest: if you love it that much it’s just sad because 1) it will change and 2) you are probably relying on that one reed. (I could continue to list other reasons, but for now I’ll leave it at that.)

A non-reed player can’t quite understand why we all go crazy over reeds. When we get that rare batch of really great cane it’s rather like getting a huge sum of unexpected money in the mail: it’s wonderful, you can definitely use it, but it will go away. One difference between the two, though, is that the money doesn’t change value: a $100 bill doesn’t suddenly morph into a $5, but the cane just might opt to change at some point. Maybe it’s more like a bottle of good wine. Hm.

Most of my students aren’t interested in making reeds. They are young, they are FAR too busy (oh how I wish they weren’t pushed to do so darn much: how can they do anything well and with passion when they are running from one “this’ll get me into college” thing to the next?), and, honestly, they really don’t want to bother. I have colleagues who require their students to make reeds. I don’t. I’ve taught two reed making classes in the past few years and not ONE of those students continued with the process. They merely developed great respect and admiration for the reed makers from whom they order! (That is actually one of the main reasons I wanted to teach the skill … that, and getting parents to understand how difficult the craft is.) I think I’m now done with teaching the craft: someone else can take over on that. I have hated reed making for years, and it’s better to learn from someone who doesn’t despise it quite as much as I do.

But I ramble. Mostly I wanted to share this quote from the wonderful oboist Aaron Hill:

Reed making is what it must feel like to try to keep an endangered species from going extinct. We cling to a few precious living specimens for hope and guard them with every bit of strength we have. Many attempts to reproduce good reeds either fail entirely or don’t reach maturity.

Here is a nice interview with Aaron and this link takes you to some great YouTube videos by him. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He’s a great player and I have no doubt that he’s also a great teacher.

2 Comments

  1. Oboists have to be doubly skilled (Ha, ha). I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to make good reeds. It takes an entirely different skill set to be able make good reeds compared to being a good player. I am just amazed at how many players can do both so well. I can make my own reeds, and if they were the last reeds on earth (save Jones reeds and the like, which are much, much worse) I could make them work for a concert, but they’re no where close to the level of reeds I buy from a career oboist. It’s an interesting craft to keep up and try to improve though, so I keep at it just for that reason. The reed falling in a crack image makes me queasy.

  2. Yep, it’s a skill not every oboist has, to be honest! I think anyone who is serious about oboe needs to learn it and, of course, we all have to know how to adjust reeds. But I’m not convinced that every oboist must make her own reeds.

    Thanks for your comment! :-)

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